Sep. 8, 2010

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

The publication of Stephen Hawking's latest book The Grand Design has stirred some new fire into the old embers of metaphysical speculation. Specifically, the discussion centres on one of the perennial Big Questions; why is there something rather than nothing?

Tough question that, probably impossible for the human mind to definitively answer. I haven't read Hawking's latest book yet, but from reviews I've noted on-line it would seem his answer is that the laws of the universe are such that it didn't require any outside force to initiate the manifestation  of a new universe. Which begs the question, where did these laws come from? Isn't the very concept of a "law" rather anthropomorphic? ("Your Honour, my client violated Planck's Constant by reason of temporary insanity.")

On the other side are the theists whose answer is that a transcendent, pre-existing entity, being or force willed the creation and set out the laws. This answer seems more complete but still doesn't offer a final solution because of course it begs the question, why is there a God anyway? Again, why is there something, even a transcendent something or someone, rather than nothing?

The Buddha's position was that such questions are fundamentally impossible to answer and useless to speculate about. His teaching was meant to be practical; what is our existential dilemma, how did we get ourselves into this mess, is there a way out and how do we manage to get there? Knowledge about the original manifestation or creation of the universe, even if it could be had, would not be useful in answering any of these practical questions.

Instead of a creation theory, the Buddha taught the dependent origination which has the more limited and practical purpose of describing how we find ourselves in this state of cyclic suffering known as samsara. It is a teaching that is entirely oriented toward the immediate human experience and does not attempt to push the question back to ultimate origins.

Without forgetting these original Buddhist principles, it may be interesting to think about how a Buddhist would position himself in the current debate.

For one thing, we should not assume that the universe needed to have a point of origin at all. While the Buddha, as noted above, refused to speculate on the matter, the later Buddhist tradition definitely leaned toward the idea that universe was both beginingless and endless, infinite in both directions and fundamentally cyclical in nature. This was in line with the general trend of Indian thought which is in stark contrast to the linear, eschatological view of Zoroastrian Persia and the monotheistic religions of the west, (whose cosmology may have roots in Zoroastrianism.)

Nowadays, the linear view has found some support in the Big Bang theory. But we should be careful not to take this as definitively proven. There is some contrary evidence that would support a "steady-state" or eternally existing universe. Most probably, the Buddha was right in that this is a question which can never be finally answered.

If we allow for the sake of argument that the universe may not have a single moment of origin, while this doesn't put to rest the question of why there is something rather than nothing, it does shift the emphasis somewhat and would tend against the idea of a creator. Schopenhauer addressed this from a philosophical perspective and said that there is no logical necessity for a first origin and that such an original moment would be a fundamental break in the chain of causality.

Another question raised by this debate is the reality of a transcendent element. Here, the Buddhist shares some ground with the theistic thinker but there are important differences in their understanding of the transcendent. The Unconditioned in Buddhism (the experience of which is called Nibbana or Nirvana) is completely ineffable, which means that it cannot be described in words or grasped in thought. This makes sense because words and thought are products of the conditioned realm. When the Buddha spoke about Nibbana it was always either in poetic similes or in negations; telling us what it is not. However, without forgetting its' ineffable nature we may venture on some approximations; it is outside time-and-space, it is neither physical not mental but sui generis in a category of its' own, it is not subject to change, suffering or cause-and-effect. In Christian theological language, the Nibbana-element is both trascendent (wholly other, "not-this") and immanent (present here-and-now.) Close Pali analogues would be lokuttara (lit. "Beyond the World") and sanditthiko (lit. "Able to be Seen Now").

In line with the practical nature of the Buddha's teaching, the only real argument for the reality of this transcendent element is experiential. "If there were no Unconditioned, there would be no escape from the Conditioned, but since there is an escape, there is an Unconditioned." In colloquial terms, you have to have been there.

This transcendent element seems to have some parallels with the concept of God but is different in that the Unconditioned is never conceived of as a person, being or entity that can through the power of its' will intervene in the Conditioned realm. For it to do so would be a violation of its' fundamental nature as outside of cause-and-effect. The closest approach to the Buddhist idea of the transendental found within theistic thought might be the apophatic view of the God-head held by the Eastern Orthodox or perhaps the Unmanifest in Jewish Kabbalah.

Perhaps a fair summary of the Buddhist position would be that while the question of why there is something rather than nothing is unanswerable (abhyakata) we can refer to the dependent origination to understand how this particular something we are caught up in comes about. Furthermore, we can venture that there are indeed two different modes of Something; samsaric and nibbanic, manifest and non-manifest, conditioned and unconditioned. So, once again, we take a Middle Path sharing some ground with both the theist and the atheist, but not agreeing completely with either pole.


The theist argument against Hawking - The Curious Metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking
An argument against the "Big Bang" - Religion Disguised as Science
What all the fuss is about anyway - Hubble Looks at Nothing, finds Something

Jul. 29, 2010

Pali Tutor Upgrage

Thanks to the useful feedback, I've made some changes to the Pali Tutor. The vocabulary module now accepts direct keyboard input, including the use of the Return key to initiate "Check Answer." You can still use the Pali Keypad if you prefer, or if you are not set up to type Unicode. I've also added a couple more drills to the Declension module. Coming next: more vocabularies.

Jul. 25, 2010

Announcing The Pali Tutor

Learning to read Pali is something many students of Buddhism would like to do, but many are put off because initially it seems so difficult. Admittedly, it's a shallower learning curve if you've already,  at some time, studied Latin or another inflected language. I went through school so far back in the mists of time that Latin was still a compulsory subject in High School. Although I remembered almost nothing of it by the time I tried my hand at Pali, the idea of inflected nouns was not altogether foreign to me.

If you can cross that conceptual bridge, what remains is the donkey work involved in learning any language; the memorization of vocabulary, declensions and conjugations. Having suffered an injury that kept me from useful labour out of doors most of this spring and summer, I found something useful to do indoors and brushed up on my Javascript to carry out a project I've had percolating in my mind for some time.

The result is the Pali Tutor, an online application that lets the user do interactive memory drills for Pali vocabulary and declensions. I may add conjugations at some future time. If anyone finds this useful, drop me a line. Especially write to me if you find any mistakes or bugs.

This is actually my second iteration of this idea, the previous one done about a decade ago was in Hypertalk format, which is now obsolete. Computers are here to remind us of anicca.

Jan. 9, 2010

Palm Leaves to OSX; problems of Pali Fonts

Pali was originally a spoken language only, and was not committed to writing until several hundred years after the Buddha's time. During the Buddha's own lifetime writing was, in India, a fairly recent technological innovation and was used only for practical purposes such as commercial and diplomatic messages. It was still considered improper to use such a vulgar medium for religious texts.

So, Pali has no written alphabet of its own. The language has, by one count, 32 consonant and 8 vowel sounds. The consonants are organized in a logical fashion in a grid according to how they are sounded; whether aspirated or not and where the tongue is placed in the mouth. This is very different from the Roman alphabet used in English and other Western European languages, but is a system widely used in South and South-East Asian alphabets. (Some readers may be familiar with a similar system adopted by J.R.R. Tolkien for his imaginary Elvish languages. Tolkien was, after all, a linguist.)

In the traditional Theravada countries, Pali is easily rendered into the local alphabets and there are Sinhala, Thai and Burmese editions of the Tipitika. Pali was not rendered into Roman until the nineteenth century when German and English scholars began to take an interest in the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. A problem arose immediately in that the Roman alphabet does not have enough letters to render each Pali sound.

This was solved in two ways. First, the aspirated versions of several consonants were rendered by adding an "h." Thus; bh, kh etc. represent only one letter in Pali. "Buddha" has four letters, not five, in Pali. This is a reasonable compromise and only causes confusion to those not familiar with Pali orthography, thus we see common misspellings such as "Bhudda."

The other method adopted was the addition of diacritical marks. Pali vowels are relatively simple; there are five basic vowel sounds which occur as either "long" or "short." The length of a vowel does not change it's basic sound, but only the time it is held and is mostly important for metrical purposes in verse. The long vowels are indicated by a macron (dash) over the letter. ā ū ī

Several of the consonants have a "retroflex" version, a sound not familiar to English speakers. It is made by curling the tongue back in the mouth. This is indicated by a dot placed under the letter.  ḍ ṭ There is also a special version of n, which is pronounced like "ny" as in the English "canyon" which is indicated by a tilde (like a sine-wave) mark over the n, like in Spanish. ñ

This leaves one very special sound in Pali to be rendered. That is the "pure nasal" or in Pali, the "niggahita" which nasalizes the preceding vowel. It is not really a sound on it's own, but roughly it is like a terminal "ng" as in English "ring." There is a lot of typographical confusion over this letter in Roman Pali. Nowadays it is most commonly indicated by an "m" with a dot underneath but in many older books one will see a funny "n" with a curly tail, or an "m" with a dot over it, or even an "n" with a dot over it. ṃ ŋ

When books were still printed with moveable type, special letters would have to be cast for the diacriticals. If a page with Pali words was produced on a typewriter, the marks would have to be added by hand.

This was the case for the early pioneering editions of the Pali texts produced in Roman fonts by the Pali Text Society. That august body still prints from photo-engraved plates based on the original, hence their editions usually have a longish insert of "errata" since it is impossible to correct minor faults in the original.

The original Roman Pali was produced by painstaking scholarship, comparing word by word the Sinhala, Siamese and Burmese versions; footnotes indicated any variation between the three. This, of course, was done at a time when computer technology was no more than a twinkle in Sir Charles Babbage's eye.

Fast forward to the 1980's and the dawn of the modern computer age with its promise of a paperless office, expanded leisure time and easy to use Pali fonts. (Not so much for any of it.) My own first computer was a Commodore-128.  For the information of the younger set, this was a primitive device with no hard-drive, a black-and-white low-res monitor and packed with 128 kilobytes of RAM. The word "font" was not yet known outside of professional typographical circles. The word processor had one bit-mapped typeface for general use but it did come with an alternate to be used for typing in French, which included the various accented vowels for that language.

I needed to be able to produce Pali letters so I copied the French type-set, hacked the machine-code for the bit-mapped letters and put the most common Pali diacritical letters in place of the French accented vowels. I was able to type Pali because the poor Commodore thought it was speaking French. (Oddly, I miss that machine.)

Come the nineties (remember them?) and the computer revolution shifted into second or third gear. I started using a Mac (System 6) and cobbled together my own postscript Pali Fonts using a programme called Fontographer. After something called the Internets became a wildly popular fad, more and more Pali Fonts started to become available.

The problem now was one sadly familiar to computer users in those days; lack of standards. Each font had its own unique keymap. A document produced using MyNorman would not print properly in LeedsBitPali. Conversions required a lot of tedious search-and-replace. Worse, fonts and keymaps did not translate well across platforms. Changes in software eventually made my own Pali fonts obsolete. Sometimes cumbersome work-arounds had to be employed. I once produced a Pali chanting book using Word macros. The resulting file was huge and it slowed the computer to crawl just attempting to scroll through the pages.

But now we are at the dawn of a new era. Finally, it is getting easy to use not only Pali but almost any alphabet, thanks to Unicode. This is an expansion of the old ASCII idea; each character has a unique, universally agreed hexadecimal code. The old ASCII standard was limited to 256 characters. The new Unicode, by adding a few digits, increases the potential to over 2 million characters. Of course, not every font will have every known character, but as long as developers adhere to the standard (hah! I'm talking to you Bill Gates) we should be guaranteed that every font which has a Pali retroflex "d" will have it in the same place, i.e. use the same hexadecimal coding.

So documents produced in Unicode Helvetica on a Mac should be readable in Unicode Arial on a Windows box. And everything should display properly in a browser window. Let's see if it works; I'm going to type the Pali word for "Consciousness" which uses several diacriticals; how does it display in your browser window?


This was especially easy for me to do in Mac OSX using a freeware application called Ukelele which lets me define my own custom keymap. So, I have a home-made Pali keymap which puts, for example, the long-a under option-a. Because of Unicode, this doesn't matter at the other end because the hex code for the letter remains unchanged! When the Unicode standard becomes really universal we'll finally have reached the same ease of use for Pali letters as scratching on palm-leaves.

Paperless office and expanded leisure time coming next...